Friday, March 21, 2014

Colophons and Marginalia and All That

  I love beautiful medieval illuminations as much as the next time travelling aesthete, but I have always had a fascination for the words. Perhaps even more interesting than the words of the main text, which earnest scholars have translated, edited and argued over for decades, are the extra words which scribes have added in margins, between lines, on flyleaves and at the ends of texts. The little personal prayers that are added into blank spaces in professionally produced books of hours add individuality, even if they are scratched on to the page in less than calligraphic style. They can give you a little peek at how the book was used and regarded by the folks who owned it, wrote it or read it hundreds of years ago.
  This has become something of a fashion in paleographical and codicological studies these days. Scholarly tomes have been written on the subject and there is a website, Annotated Books Online, which provides digital facsimiles of mostly early printed books with handwritten annotations.
  This is why I used the colophon from the Lindisfarne Gospels as an example of insular minuscule writing in Medieval Writing. The graphics for that exercise have now been upgraded courtesy of downloaded colour images from the British Library, where all pages of that historic work are now online.

  So why did Aldred, scribe of the gloss, describe himself as an unworthy and most miserable priest? Was it a polite conventionality, or was he truly in awe of the mighty work which had been produced a couple of centuries before? Can you imagine him standing before the abbot jabbering, "What! You want me to write all over this! Are you kidding? Oh dear Lord I am so miserable and unworthy." OK, so I am getting a little imaginative here, but somehow it makes it all a little more human.

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